World Cup third-place play-off: ‘The worst game to play’ is a nonsense and should be scrapped

Ian Watson
Gianni Infantino presents Kevin De Bruyne with his medal after the third-place play-off at the 2018 FIFA World Cup.

“It is not really an important game is it, honestly speaking?” Morocco have more reason than most to finish third but even they view the play-off as a waste of energy…


If the old adage is true, losers are forgotten. But at the World Cup, the greatest footballing contest on earth, FIFA continue to peddle a fixture where the majority of punters would be hard pushed to recall the winners.

Croatia and Morocco have to recover from their crushing disappointment this week in time to do battle for the quickly-forgotten honour of being the third-place finisher at the World Cup. England have lost a couple of these gatherings before, and I vaguely recall Holland taking a sort-of-bronze in 2014. The outcome of any other semi-final losers meeting was a mystery before looking them up just now.

I was perfectly content living in such ignorance. Why devote precious memory space to a match on the world stage that holds less significance than the Community Shield? Especially at this World Cup, a competition shoehorned into the middle of a club season because, FIFA.

Many players and managers care not one bit for it. “I think this match should never be played,” said Louis van Gaal about his final game in charge of Netherlands in 2014, his second of a three-part series of final games for King Louis. “The honest thing is it’s not a game any team wants to play in,” admitted Gareth Southgate when he was asked about England’s unwanted assignment at the last tournament. Managers can recognise that their players are shattered  – physically and mentally – and just want to come home, which is hardly unreasonable. The same goes for the coaches.

The reward is certainly not worth the risk of making weary players lace up one more time while their clubs wait anxiously. So, on Saturday, they probably won’t. Zlatko Dalic and Walid Regragui will almost certainly rotate their squads and the 2022 World Cup finals will offer up Croatia against Morocco for the second time in a few weeks, the only difference from that 0-0 draw being that this will be a rematch of the reserves.

Perhaps Morocco have more than most to play for in this second-last game in Qatar. The Atlas Lions have set a new benchmark for African nations and third does sound one better than fourth. But in years to come, their legacy would not be altered in any way should they lose a match Regragui has labelled “the worst game to play”.

“Yes, we are thinking about our FIFA ranking but it is quite difficult for us and also for you I guess as journalists because it is not really an important game is it, honestly speaking?”

The apathy and general disinterest in a game to decide who finishes third has been rife for years. The European Championships canned the play-off in 1980 and not once has anyone missed it.

The idea is in direct contrast to the principle of a knockout tournament. The importance at a World Cup is supposed to increase with each game. From the last-16, it’s winner stays on. As Van Gaal noted: “In a tournament, you shouldn’t have players play a match for third or fourth place. There’s only one award that counts, and that’s being world champion.”

When, unlike at the Olympics, there is no merit in third place, what justifiable reason is there for continuing with such a meaningless affair?

Some overachieving third-place finishers may contest that it is a hollow triumph. Croatia were chuffed to win it at their first ever World Cup in 1998 and so too were Sweden four years before. But, like Morocco now, their achievements would be held in no less esteem had they not been made to play Holland and Bulgaria respectively.

There might be individual merit too. Davor Suker was happy to go through the motions at France ’98. As were Toto Schillaci in 1990 and Thomas Muller eight years ago. Because all three scored goals in the third-place play-off that earned them the World Cup’s Golden Boot. Runners up Tomas Skuhravy, Gabriel Batistuta, Christian Vieri and David Villa will probably argue that not all World Cup goals are equal. The approach to play-off matches is akin to that of exhibition games, and that seems to be reflected in the defending.

The last 10 World Cup finals tournaments, back to Spain ’82, have produced an average of 2.5 goals per game. The average number of goals in third-place play-off matches during that same 40-year period is four. There is no asterisk next to Suker, Schillaci and Muller’s names on the list of Golden Boot winners but perhaps there should be. Just as it should be remembered that Just Fontaine’s all-time tournament record of 13 goals includes four in the 1958 play-off.

Despite the increase in goals traditionally on offer, few fans would miss the third-place play-offs or even notice that they were gone should FIFA follow UEFA’s lead and abandon them. There appears little likelihood of that happening, however, while the governing body can make a few quid from another game to sell and another opportunity for Gianni Infantino to get his mug on TVs across the world. Assuming anyone is watching.

So it seems the players and coaches are stuck with them. They have spoiled us over the last month, so Croatia and a Morocco squad running on fumes should be allowed a couple of days’ extra break rather than one of them having a very creditable tournament closing with a couple of defeats suffered by one ‘B’ team against another. The penultimate match of the World Cup is comfortably its least important. How can that be logical?

Read more: A totally unscientific ranking of every 2022 WC team from least to most favourite